HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: teaching

February 11

Who Owns Courses?

After the preposterous CAUT report on the University of Manitoba’s Economics Department was released, President David Barnard offered a wonderfully robust and thought-provoking refutation of CAUT’s accusations.

One of the most interesting observations Barnard makes relates to a specific incident from the report, namely the request by a departmental council to review an existing Health Economics course after having approved a new Economic Determinants of Health Course taught by the same professor.  CAUT viewed this as a violation of the professor’s academic freedom (basically – she/he can teach whatever she/he likes).

In an age when we are all intensely aware of intellectual property rights issues, we have, over time, come to focus on the professor’s role as a creator of content.  And this is absolutely right.  The way in which Economics Macro 300 or Organizational Behaviour 250 gets taught is a reflection of a professor’s lifetime of scholarship, and many hundreds of hours of hard work in creating a pedagogy and syllabus that conveys the necessary information to students.  The idea that this “belongs” to anyone other than the professor is ridiculous – which is why there have been such fierce battles over the terms of universities’ involvement with private for-profit companies, like Coursera, with respect to online education.

Barnard responds to this line of thinking by reminding us of a very important truth: Macro 300 and OB 250 exist independently of the professors who currently teach them.  When they are approved by Senate, they become the property of the university as a whole (with the department in which the course is situated taking special responsibility).  After the incumbent of a particular course retires or leaves, someone else will be asked to takeover.  The course, in this sense, is eternal and communal.  It does not “belong” to the professor.

There’s an obvious tension here between the way a course gets taught (owned by the prof) and the course objectives and outcomes (owned by the university).  Usually – at least in Canada and the United States – we solve the problem by always leaning in favour of the professor.  Which is certainly the easier option.  However, this attitude, which gives total sovereignty to professors at the level of the individual course, inevitably leads to programs become disjointed –  especially in Arts and Sciences.  Students end up missing key pieces of knowledge, or have to learn it and re-learn it two or three times.

Universities own courses in the sense that a course is a building block towards a degree, (which the university very definitely owns – its entire existence is predicated on being a monopoly provider of degrees).  As a result, course objectives, how a course fits into the overall program goals, course assessment guidelines, and course delivery mechanisms (online, blended, or in-person) are all legitimately in the hands of the university and its academic decision-making bodies.  The actual syllabus – that is, what material gets taught in pursuit of the objectives – and the pedagogical methods used is what belongs to the professor.

The problem here is that, in Arts and Science at least (less so elsewhere), our smorgasbord thinking about curriculum makes us prone to assuming that courses stand alone, and do not contribute to a larger programmatic structure.  Hence the widespread fallacy that professors “own” courses, when the reality is that courses are a shared enterprise.

January 23

Classroom Economics (The End)

So we spent Monday looking at the economic basics of classroom and teaching loads, and Tuesday looking at how difficult it is to improve the situation by increases in tuition or government grants.  Wednesday we saw that reducing average academic compensation (presumably via increasing the proportion of credits taught by adjuncts) can be quite effective in reducing teaching loads, while on Thursday we saw how trying to achieve a similar effect through attacking costs other than academic compensation would require enormously painful – and probably unrealistic – cuts.

What can we conclude from all this?

There is no silver bullet here.  You can’t solve everything on the revenue side because governments: i) aren’t going to fork over the stonking huge amounts of money required to change things; ii) aren’t going to permit large tuition increases; and, iii) at some point are going to put limits on the extent to which universities can escape domestic fiscal problems by becoming finishing schools for the Asian middle class.  At the same time, you can’t solve everything by decreasing average academic wages because: i) tenure; ii) unions; and, iii) casualization can’t go on indefinitely.  Finally, you can’t solve everything by cutting “fat” on the non-academic side because the size of the bloodletting would simply be too big.

So, realistically, the solution to keeping teaching loads (and hence class sizes) manageable is to work at the margins on all three, at once.  The income one is probably the easiest: even if government does not have more money, it could (as I argued back here) allow tuition to rise without students being unduly affected if it simply reformed student aid to make it more efficient and transparent.

On non-academic costs, vigilance is key.  Costs need to be kept in check.  There is a need to continually become more efficient – which probably means looking more seriously at outsourcing certain functions. Bits of IT come to mind, as do bookshops.

On academic salaries, there’s no big secret about what needs to be done.  Every time wages increase, universities either have to get more income, or increase the number of sessionals, or raise teaching loads.  That’s simple arithmetic.  To the extent an institution can keep enrolments up and get a little bit more money per student, on average, the situation can stay relatively stable indefinitely (though it isn’t going to get any better).

Where this gets tricky is where student numbers – and hence income – start to fall.  We didn’t explore that this week because our equation – X = aϒ/(b+c) – assumes that there is budget balance.  But when enrolment drops, expenditure has to drop in the medium term because the lack of students means you can’t release the pressure by increasing teaching loads.

So when you see the number of applicants to an institution drop by, say, 20% (as first-choice applications have now done at Windsor) over two years, you start to worry.  Without the option to increase loads, expenditures have to fall, and as we’ve seen, the least disruptive way to do that is to increase sessionals.  But since tenure exists and you can’t force out a professor and replace them with a sessional, that’s a marginal solution at best.  Academic compensation will have to fall: either through wage freezes, pension changes, or a reduction in the number of academic positions.  Either that or the institution will close.

There’s no sinister conspiracy here, no evil administrative plots.  It’s just math.  More people should pay attention to it.

January 21

Classroom Economics (Part 3)

(If you’re just tuning in today, you may want to catch up on Part 1 and Part 2)

Back to our equation: X = aϒ/(b+c), where “X” is the total number of credit hours a professor must teach each year (a credit hour here meaning one student sitting in one course for one term), “ϒ” is average compensation per professor, “a” is the overhead required to support each professor, “b” is the government grant per student credit hour, and “c” is the tuition revenue per credit hour.

I noted in Part 1 of this series that most profs don’t actually teach the 235 credit hours our formula implied. Partly that’s because teaching loads aren’t distributed equally.  Imagine a department of ten people, which would need to teach 2350 credit hours in order to cover its costs.  If just two people teach the big intro courses and take on 500 credit hours apiece, the other 8 will be teaching a much more manageable 169 credit hours (5 classes of under 35 students for those teaching 3/2).

Now, while I’m talking about class size, you’ll notice that this concept isn’t actually a factor in our equation – only the total number of credit hours required to be taught.  You can divide ‘em up how you want.  Want to teach 5 courses a year?  Great.  Average class size will be 47.  Want to teach four courses?  No sweat, just take 59 students per class instead.  It’s up to you.

When you hear professors complain about increased class sizes, this is partly what’s going on.  As universities have reduced professors’ teaching loads (to support research, natch) without reducing the number of students, the average number of students per class has risen.  That has nothing to do with underfunding or perfidious administrators; it’s just straight arithmetic.

But there is a way to get around this.  Let’s say a university lowers its normal teaching load from 3/2 to 2/2, as many Canadian institutions have done in the last two decades.  As I note above, there is no necessary financial cost to this: just offer fewer, larger courses.  Problem is, no university that has gone down this path has actually reduced its course offerings by the necessary 20% to make this work.  Somehow, they’re still offering those courses.

That “somehow” is sessional lecturers, or adjuncts if you prefer.  They’ll teach a course for roughly a third of what a full-time prof will.  So their net effect on our equation is to lower the average price of academic labour.  Watch what happens when we reduce teaching loads from 3/2 to 2/2, and give that increment of classes over to adjuncts.

(.8*150,000) + (.2*50,000) = $130,000

X= 2.27($150,000)/($600+$850) = 235

X= 2.27(130,000)/($600+$850) = 195

The alert among you will probably note that the fixed cost nature of “a” means that it would likely rise somewhat as ϒ falls, so this is probably overstating the fall in teaching loads a bit.  But still, this result is pretty awesome.  If you reduce your faculty teaching load, and hand over the difference to lower-paid sessionals, not only do you get more research, but the average teaching load also falls significantly.  Everyone wins!  Well, maybe not the sessionals, but you get what I mean.

This underlines something pretty serious: the financial problems we have lay much more on the left side of the equation than on the right side.  However much you think professors deserve to be paid, there’s an iron triangle of institutional income, salaries, and credit hours that cannot be escaped.  If you can’t increase tuition, and more government money isn’t forthcoming, then you either have to accept higher teaching loads or lower average salaries.  And if wage rollbacks among full-time staff isn’t in the cards, then average costs are going to be reduced through increased casualization.  Period.

Or almost, anyway. To date we’ve focused just on ϒ – but what about “a”?  Can’t we make that coefficient smaller somehow?

Good question.  More tomorrow.

January 20

Classroom Economics (Part 2)

Yesterday, I introduced the equation X = aϒ/(b+c) as a way of setting overall teaching loads. Let’s now use this to understand how funding parameters drive overall teaching loads.

Assume the following starting parameters:

1

 

 

 

 

 

Where a credit hour = 1 student in 1 class for 1 semester.

Here’s the most obvious way it works.  Let’s say the government decides to increase funding by 10%, from $600 to $660 (which would be huge – a far larger move than is conceivable, except say in Newfoundland at the height of the oil boom).  Assuming no other changes – that is, average compensation and overhead remain constant – the 10% increase would mean:

X= 2.27($150,000)/($600+$850) = 235

X= 2.27($150,000)/($660+$850) = 225

In other words, a ten percent increase in funding and a freeze on expenditures would reduce teaching loads by about 4%.  Assuming a professor is teaching 2/2, that’s a decrease of 2.5 students per class.  Why so small?  Because in this scenario (which is pretty close to the current situation in Ontario and Nova Scotia), government funding is only about 40% of operating income.  The size of the funding increase necessary to generate a significant effect on teaching loads and class sizes is enormous.

And of course that’s assuming no changes in other costs.  What happens if we assume a more realistic scenario, one in which average salaries rise 3%, and overhead rises at the same rate?

X= 2.27($154,500)/($660+$850) = 232

In other words, as far as class size is concerned, normal (for Canada anyway) salary increases will eat up about 70% of a 10% increase in government funding.  Or, to put it another way, one would normally expect a 10% increase in government funding to reduce class sizes by a shade over 1%.

Sobering, huh?

OK, let’s now take it from the other direction – how big an income boost would it take to reduce class sizes by 10%?  Well, assuming that salary and other costs are rising by 3%, the entire right side of the equation (b+c) would need to rise by 14.5%.  That would require an increase in government funding of 35%, or an increase in revenues from students of 25% (which could either be achieved through tuition increases, or a really big shift from domestic to international enrolments), or some mix of the two; for instance, a 10% increase in government funds and a 17% increase in student funds.

That’s more than sobering.  That’s into “I really need a drink” territory.  And what makes it worse is that even if you could pull off that kind of revenue increase, ongoing 3% increases in salary and overhead would eat up the entire increase in just three years.

Now, don’t take these exact numbers as gospel.  This example works in a couple of  low-cost programs (Arts, Business, etc.) in Ontario and Nova Scotia (which, to be fair, represent half the country’s student body), but most programs in most provinces are working off a higher denominator than this, and for them it would be less grim than I’m making out here.  Go ahead and play with the formula with data from your own institution and see what happens – it’s revealing.

Nevertheless, the basic problem is the same everywhere.  As long as costs are increasing, you either have to get used to some pretty heroic revenue assumptions (likely involving significant tuition increases) or you have to get used to the idea of ever-higher teaching loads.

So what are the options on cost-cutting?  Tune in tomorrow.

July 07

How to Measure Teaching Quality

One of the main struggles with measuring performance in higher education – whether of departments, faculties, or institutions – is how to measure the quality of teaching.

Teaching does not go entirely unmeasured in higher education.  Individual courses are rated by students through course evaluation surveys, which occur at the end of each semester.  The results of these evaluations do have some bearing on hiring, pay, and promotion (though how much bearing varies significantly from place to place), but these data are never aggregated to allow comparisons of quality of instruction across departments or institutions.  That’s partly because faculty unions are wary about using individual professors’ performance data as an input for anything other than pay and promotion decisions, but it also suits the interests of the research-intensive universities who do not wish to see the creation of a metric that would put them at a disadvantage vis-a-vis their less-research-intensive brethren (which is also why course evaluations differ from one institution to the next).

Some people try to get around the comparability issue by asking students about teaching generally at their institution.  In European rankings (and Canada’s old Globe and Mail rankings), many of which have a survey component, students are simply asked questions about the quality of courses they are in.  This gets around the issue of using course evaluation data, but it doesn’t address a more fundamental problem, which is that a large proportion of academic staff essentially believes the whole process is inherently flawed because students are incapable of knowing quality teaching when they see it.  There is a bit of truth here: it has been established, for instance, that teachers who grade more leniently tend to get better course satisfaction scores.  But this is hardly a lethal argument.  Just control for average class grade before reporting the score.

It’s not as though there isn’t a broad consensus on what makes for good teaching.  Is the teacher clear about goals and expectations?  Does she/he communicate ideas effectively?  Is he or she available to students when needed?  Are students challenged to learn new material and apply this knowledge effectively?  Ask students those kinds of questions and you can get valid, comparable responses.  The results are more complicated to report than a simple satisfaction score, sure – but it’s not impossible to do so.  And because of that, it’s worth doing.

And even the simple questions like “was this a good course” might be more indicative than we think.  The typical push-back is “but you can’t really judge effectiveness until years later”.  Well, OK – let’s test a proposition.  Why not just ask students about a course they took a few years ago, and compare it with the answers they gave in a course evaluation at the time?  If they’re completely different, we can indeed start ignoring satisfaction types of questions.  But we might find that a good result today is in fact a pretty good proxy for results in a few years, and therefore we would be perfectly justified in using it as a measure of teaching quality.

Students may be inexperienced, but they’re not dumb.  We should keep that in mind when dismissing the results of teaching quality surveys.

June 09

Teaching Load Versus Workload

I often get into discussions that go like this:

Me: Over time, the number of classes each professor teaches has gone down.  Places where people used to teach 3/2 (three classes one term, two the other) now teach 2/1.  Places where 4/3 or even 4/4 were common are now 3/2.   This has been one of the main things making higher education more expensive in Canada.

Someone else (usually a prof): Yeah, but classes are so much larger now than they used to be.

Me: Do you not think that teaching fewer classes maybe the cause of higher average class size?  Do you think that if everyone taught more classes average class size would fall?

(nota bene: This isn’t the whole story, obviously.  Student-staff ratios have gone up to such a degree that even if profs were teaching the same number of courses, numbers would still be up a bit.  Though how much is hard to say, because of the changing use of sessional lecturers.)

Someone else: Does it matter?  Same number of students, same amount of work.

Me: Is it?  Are three classes of fifty students actually the same amount as five classes of thirty students?  Doesn’t less class prep time more than make up for the increase in marking?

Someone else: Um, well, yeah.  Probably.  But we’re still doing lots of committee work!  And tenure requirements have become much more punishing than they used to be!  And those teaching loads don’t count graduate student supervisions.

Me: No doubt, committee work can take up a lot of time – though much of it exists simply to make the university less effective.  But that research one – that’s not distributed equally across the university, is it? I mean, we know that the pace of publication falls pretty quickly after tenure is granted (see figure 3 of this PPP article by Herb Emery).  And not all university research is of the same quality: Well over 10% of all Canadian faculty (24% in the humanities) have never had a publication cited by anyone else (HESA research, which we demonstrated back here).

Someone else:  And graduate supervision?

Me: Fair point.  But graduate supervision is all over the place.  Supervising a PhD in Science tends to be more intensive than in Arts.  And course-based Masters’ student are increasingly more like undergraduates than doctoral students in the loads they bring.  Hard to measure.

Someone else: But shouldn’t all this be measured?

Me: Of course.  But notice how Canadian university Collective Bargaining Agreements avoid the question of overall workload, even though they often get really specific about teaching loads.  Universities don’t want to measure this stuff because it would expose how many profs are working way too hard, and unions don’t want to measure this stuff because it would expose how many profs aren’t.    Look how hard both sides worked to discredit the HEQCO paper on professorial productivity, which posed exactly that question.

Someone else: is this ever going to change?

Me: Governments could put pressure on institutions to actually enforce the bits of the CBAs that require faculty to actually do the hard-to-measure stuff (committee work, research).  Junior staff could make more of a fuss within the unions to start ensuring equal treatment of workloads within the bargaining unit.  Short of that, no.

Someone else: Aren’t you a bit cynical?

Me: Around here, hard not to be.

March 13

Teaching Loads, Fairness, and Productivity

It’s been a long time since I’ve been as disappointed by an article on higher education as I was by the Star’s coverage of the release of the new HEQCO paper on teaching and research productivity.  A really long time.

If you haven’t read the HEQCO paper yet, do so.  It’s great.  Using departmental websites, the authors (Linda Joncker and Martin Hicks) got a list of people teaching in Economics, Chemistry, and Philosophy at ten Ontario universities.  From course calendars, Google scholar, and tri-council grant databases, they were able to work out each professor’s course load, and whether or not they were “research active” (i.e. whether they had either published something or received a tri-council grant in the past three years).  On the basis of this, they could work out the teaching loads of profs who were research-active vs. those who were not (except in Philosophy, where they reckoned they couldn’t publish the data because there simply weren’t that many profs who met their definition of being research-active).  Here’s what they found:

Annual Course Load by Research Active Status

image001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be clear, one course here is actually a half course.  So the finding that “non-research-active” professors teach less than one course extra means that there are, in fact, a heck of a lot of non-research-active profs who teach no extra courses, and who teach exactly the same amount as professors who are research active.

For reasons of fairness as much as  productivity, this seems like a result worth discussing, no?  And yet – here’s where the disappointment comes in – that doesn’t appear to be where the main actors in this little drama want to go with the story.  Rather, they appear to want to make irrelevant asides about the study itself.

Now I say “appear” because it’s possible they have more nuanced views on the subject, and the Star just turned the story into a he-said/she-said.  I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, because the objections printed by the Star are frankly ludicrous.  They amount to the following:

1)      Teaching involves more than classroom time, it’s preparation, grading, etc.  True, but so what?  The question is whether profs who don’t produce research should be asked to teach more.  The question of what “teaching” consists of is irrelevant.

2)      Number of courses taught is irrelevant – what matters is the number of students taught.  This is a slightly better argument, though I think most profs would say that the number of courses is a bigger factor in workload than the number of students (4 classes of 30 students is significantly harder than 3 of 40).  But for this to be a relevant argument, you’d need to prove that the profs without a research profile were actually teaching systematically larger classes than their research-active counterparts.  There’s no evidence either way on this point, though I personally would lay money against it.

Here’s the deal: you can quibble with the HEQCO data, but it needs to be acknowledged: i) that data could be better, but that it is institutions themselves who hold the data and are preventing this question from being examined in greater depth; and, ii) that this is the one of the best studies ever conducted on this topic in Canada.  Kvetching about definitions is only acceptable from those actively working to improve the data and make it public.  Anyone who’s kvetching, and not doing that, quite frankly deserves to be richly ignored.

March 10

Could We Eliminate Sessionals if We Wanted To?

Last week, when I was writing about sessionals, I made the following statement:

“Had pay levels stayed constant in real terms over the last 15 years, and the surplus gone into hiring, the need for sessionals in Arts & Science would be practically nil”.

A number of you wrote to me, basically calling BS on my statement.  So I thought it would be worthwhile to show the math on this.

In 2001-02, there were 28,643 profs without administrative duties in Canada, collectively making $2.37 billion dollars, excluding benefits.  In 2009-10, there were 37,266 profs making $4.29 billion, also excluding benefits.  Adjusting for inflation, that’s a 56% increase in total compensation – but, of course, much of that is taken up by having more profs.  If we also control for the increase in the number of professors, what we have left is an increase of 18.8%, or $679 million (in 2009 dollars).

How many new hires could you make with that?  Well, the average assistant prof in 2009 made $90,000.  So, simple math would suggest that 7,544 new assistant profs could have been hired for that amount.  That means that had professors’ salaries stayed even in real terms, universities could have hired 16,347 new staff in that decade, instead of the 8,803 they actually did.

(Okay, I’m oversimplifying a bit.  There are transaction costs to landing new professors.  And hiring that many young profs all at once would just be storing up financial chaos 5-15 years down the road, as they gain in seniority.  So $679 million probably wouldn’t buy you that many new profs.  But on the other hand, if you were doing some hiring, you’d spend less money on sessionals, too, so it’s probably not far off.)

Would that number of new hires have eliminated the need for sessionals?  Hard to say, since we have no data either on the number of sessionals, or the number of courses they collectively teach.  What we can say is that if 7,500 professors had been hired, the student:faculty ratio would have fallen from 25:1 to 22:1, instead of rising – as, in fact, it did – to 27:1. That’s a pretty significant change no matter how you slice it.

(The question remains, though: would you want to give up sessionals, even if you could?  As I pointed out last week, in many programs sessionals perform a vital role of imparting practical, real-world experience to students.  And even where that’s not their primary function, they act as swing labour, helping institutions cope with sudden surges of students in particular fields of study.  They have their uses, you know.)

Now, I’m not suggesting that professors should have foregone all real wages increases over a decade, in order to increase the size of the professoriate.  But I am suggesting that universities have made some choices in terms of pay settlements that has affected their ability to hire enough staff to teach all the students they’ve taken on.  The consequence – as I noted before – is more sessionals.  But it very definitely did not need to be that way.

March 06

Sessionals

The plight of sessional lecturers (or, as they call them in the US, “adjuncts”) is possibly the only issue in higher education that generates even more overblown rhetoric than tuition fees.  Any time people start evoking slavery as a metaphor, you know perspective has flown the coop.

Though data on sessional numbers in Canada are non-existent, no one disputes that their numbers are rising, and that they are becoming an increasingly central part of major universities’ staffing plans.  In large Ontario universities, it’s not uncommon for certain faculties to have 40-50% of their total credit hours taught by sessionals.  Wage data is scarce, too, though last year University Affairs produced a worthwhile survey on sessionals’ working conditions.  The numbers vary from place to place, but let’s just say that relying solely on sessional wages must be pretty challenging.

A problem in generalizing about sessionals is that they come in two distinct varities.  First are the mid/late-career professionals who already make good money from full-time employment elsewhere, and who help provide relevant, up-to-date content based on practical experience in programs like Law and Nursing.  For them, sessional teaching is a way to pick up an extra cheque, and maybe have some fun doing it. Outside Arts & Science, this is the dominant model of sessionals, and universities are much the better for their presence.

In Arts & Sciences, on the other hand, sessionals are much more likely to be recent PhD graduates looking to get a foothold on the academic ladder.  Unable for the moment to make the tenure track, taking multiple sessional gigs lets them stay within the university system, but prevents them from doing what they (and indeed the entire higher ed system) value most: research.  As a result, being a sessional can sometimes take one further from the tenure track, rather than closer to it.  The sessional “crisis”, needless to say, focuses on this latter group, rather than on the professionals.

What’s truly bizarre about the discourse on sessionals are the frankly conspiratorial views of the cause of the “crisis”.  But there’s no mystery here: universities, for the most part, get paid by governments and students according to how much teaching they do; despite this, they pay their academic staff to spend roughly half their time doing stuff other than teaching.  Unsurprisingly, this results in there being more teaching duties than available teaching time.  Hence the need for sessionals (a need that has only grown larger as research has increased in importance).

And why is their pay so low?  Partly, it’s a free market and there’s a heck of a lot of people willing to do academic work for very little pay.  But partly it’s because institutions have a conscious choice to prioritize pay rises for existing full-time staff (gotta pay more for research excellence!) over hiring new full-time staff. Had pay levels stayed constant in real terms over the last 15 years, and the surplus gone into hiring, the need for sessionals in Arts & Science would be practically nil.

Basically, no one “decided” to create an academic underclass of sessionals.  Rather, they are an emergent property of a system where universities mostly earn money for teaching, but spend a hell of a lot of it doing research.

November 06

Teach for Canada: Attack of the Kielberger Colonialists

I see the Globe has given some laudatory coverage to something called “Teach for Canada”.  The brain-child of a couple of Bay Street types (who have never themselves taught a class), the idea here is to shamelessly rip-off Teach for America (TFA) and apply its methods to the problem of low achievement among the country’s Aboriginal youth.

This is a terrible idea.  And here’s why:

TFA recruits top university graduates right out of their undergraduate program, to do two years of teaching in some of the country’s poorest communities.  The idea is that bright, energetic, idealistic grads can succeed in teaching underprivileged youth, where regular, salaried teachers cannot.  And indeed, there’s some significant evidence that the program does work in terms of raising Math scores – such as this new study from the US Department of Education.

There is, however, no reason to think that this approach would have a similar effect if deployed in Canada among Aboriginal youth.

The reason TFA delivers some modest results is not because their brief training stint and alternative certification is equally effective as teachers college; rather, it’s because the quality of teachers in US public schools is so patchy.  Teaching isn’t a valued profession in the US, and doesn’t attract top students; the teacher-training itself is pretty weak by international standards (see Amanda Ripley’s, The Smartest Kids in the World for a decent summary on this).  Also, schools serving the poorest students tend to get weaker teachers, because funding is local and their tax base can’t support high teacher pay – a problem Canada doesn’t really have to deal with.  Of course, Canada isn’t completely free from these problems, but they’re nowhere near as severe here as they are in the US.

Ah, you say, but what about on reserves?  Doesn’t the argument hold there?

Well, the pay argument certainly does.  But let’s be clear: TFA was designed for urban environments.  TFA staff get ongoing training and mentorship.  TFA staff, for the most part, still get to live in (or close to) hip urban areas.  TFA does not go to reserves in fly-in communities, in part because the number of volunteers would be pretty low, but also because the model itself simply wouldn’t work.

More importantly, perhaps: the idea that what First Nations need are a lot of well-meaning but inexperienced white kids showing up in their communities saying, “we’re here to help!” is plain ludicrous.  There’s no doubt that education for First Nations, particularly those from more remote communities, is in a desperate state, and deserving of vastly more money and policy attention than it currently receives.  But youthful enthusiasm just isn’t a substitute for money and teaching experience.

Teach for Canada is pure do-gooding Kielberger-style colonialism.  It’s an idea that deserves a quick death.

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